Friday, 30 November 2007

MMOon on a stick.

I was reading an article over at Kinless' blog about areas of meaningful activity, where they ask at the end:

Do any of you have more ideas about “meaningful activity” that could be incorporated into the game to get people out of Shattrath and back into the world?

As pitiable as it may sound, I quite enjoyed the photography element in Bioshock. For those of you who haven't played that game, the photography element was a mini-game where you took photos of enemies and, once you had collected enough shots of a particular enemy, it earned you a 'research' bonus which granted you various character improvements, such as extra damage, for example.

I think that a mini-game along the same lines within an MMO could be quite a lot of fun. It would have players searching out locations, flora and fauna and taking pictures of them to earn bonuses or vanity items. For example, take a picture of all the various species of tiger in WoW and get yourself a mini tiger vanity pet to run around after you. It could well have players visiting old areas to find various mobs and locations. If mobs or items were deep inside some of the old-world dungeons then you could even get people running those dungeons again to get to the photo bonus objects.

What better than photography to make one open their eyes again, focus on more than the mundaneness of their immediate surroundings and see the vast expanse of the world anew.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Thought for the day.

I was reading a thread on Usenet about pornography recently and it got me thinking. Firstly I was marvelling at the improbability of finding a thread about porn on the Internet, I mean, what are the chances? Shockingly, however, the discussion was at least attempting a sane and rational look at pornography and erotica, especially with respect to the strangeness that is sex as a fully-fledged industry. Admittedly it became progressively stranger, as Usenet threads are wont to do, until it veered wildly into considering what aliens would make of our sex industry if they visited the little pit of abasement at the end of the universe that we happen to call Earth. At such a point one can only surmise that the topic of tentacle porn would shortly follow, which is as good a Godwin's Law for porn threads as one is going to get, and hence your humble narrator left forthwith.

It did however, as I have already related, trigger a train of thought.

Pornography has been with us for quite some time, but it would seem safe to say that it is only in mankind's recent history that a true industry has sprung up around the luxuriant idea of sex as relief through performance and art. The basic premise is this: as mankind has advanced, sex has become less of a basic fundamental need for survival and more of an indulgence. With indulgence comes over-indulgence, and with over-indulgence comes abstinence and a desire to attain a more seemingly healthy balance. And here is where the porn industry steps in, for the desire is still there within many people although they do not wish to carry out their desires themselves, and thus they live out their fantasies through others, while they remain safely ensconced behind the protection of a glass screen and an 'off' button.

The thing is, it's not just related to the porn industry, and this is where I hope to drag this discourse, kicking and screaming, back on to the topic of MMOs. Firstly though, let's look at the food industry. Again, as mankind has advanced (and obviously this outlook is taken from a western world perspective) food has become less of a basic fundamental need for survival due to its abundance, and therefore has become more of an indulgence in certain areas of society. As the obvious signs of over-indulgence set in, with obesity and heart disease becoming far more prevalent than these societies could hope to counter, people start to enter the abstinence cycle and eat less, and more healthily. Here is where industry steps in, and what we have now is essentially porn for food lovers, with TV shows abounding with luxuriant foods, celebrity chefs travelling the world to indulge themselves in an orgy of gastronomic gangbangs, and adverts with hot, steamy puddings, naked from the oven and just begging to be covered in cream.

So what does this have to do with MMOs? Well, in recent times there have been numerous concerns relating to the amount of time indulged in MMOs. Many players themselves are starting to realise that the sheer scale of time that they devote to nothing more than a pixelated spreadsheet simulator is possibly unhealthy, perhaps bordering on clinical obsession. Is it long, therefore, before we enter the cycle of abstinence with respect to MMOs? Has it already begun? I believe it has. MMO porn thy name is Raids.

"Oh yeah, show me the epix baby, show me the epix."

The similarities are stark: bold, brash starlets are presented to the viewer, prostrating themselves on the bed of raid content as they display their epic assets, but peer behind the facade and more often than not one will glimpse the unhappiness, insecurity or personal sacrifice of the superstar raider. The top raiders are the porn stars of the MMO world, gazed upon with the hungering eyes of players who, despite desiring the epic image that these starlets portray, are secretly happy that they have not had to suffer the trials and degradation that these raiders have gone through to thrust themselves into the public eye. Instead, the average player will observe, sate their epic-itemed desires, and then return to the comfort and safety of an ordinary adventuring life.

So the next time that you see an MMO raider standing at the post-box in a major town, with their purple bits proffered for all to see, just remember that raiders, like porn stars, are people too.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

WoW fhtagn.

At the behest of Sir Bildo the Creepily Gazed, I decided to play a little more of my Draenei priest in World of Warcraft last night in order to see just whether the latest patch, 2.3.x, could really improve what I dub the 'mid forties death grind', where all but the most exceptional of one's characters are usually abandoned, floating in the lifeless inky void of the quest hole.

A little back story: I currently have two level seventy characters, the druid was my main for the majority of the game when, I think it's safe to say, fully half the known world was playing WoW. I played my paladin in the rare gaps when friends weren't online in an attempt to not advance my druid too many levels ahead. After the initial rush, pun intended, was over I had a level sixty druid and a paladin in the mid forties where he'd been abandoned in the dark depths of questing hell, where even the light of the holy often failed to reach him. After a significant break I returned to WoW, as any player who has been touched by the game's dark chaotic tentacles is wont to do, and found that a friend, who was looking for a change from their raiding main, had a character who was also stuck in the mid forties. We teamed-up, worked our way through various quests that wouldn't have been possible solo, and mutually boosted one another through the slog, like a couple of mountaineers battling their way against the blizzard to eventually break through the cloud cover and, gasping frosty breaths, lay eyes upon the sunny summit. From then on it was the plain sailing of sunken temples and black-rocked depths as others succumbed to the Cthulhu-like pull of the Elder Game, allowed a little of the insanity to enter their lives once more, and returned to adventuring with us. Come the time of the Burning Crusade I found little trouble in getting both my level sixty characters to level seventy, and although many a group adventure was had, soloing was always an option when others weren't around. The Burning Crusade came and went, extinguished as quickly as a candle in a waterfall, and the migrating players took wing and looked for the warmer climes of other games. I hung around though, and took the opportunity to explore the new content at the other end of the scale, creating my Draenei priest and blasting through the first twenty levels of excellent new quests, slowing somewhat as I went through the enjoyable but many-times-undertaken quests in Darkshire and Redridge, until eventually (having worked through all of the Night Elf areas up to Ashenvale in order to become Exalted with Darnassus by level forty, and thus be able to buy my Draenei a graceful, lithe kitty as a mount rather than some monstrous waddling mutant pachyderm) I hit a wall at around the mid forties and I drifted away from the game on the flotsam of disenchantment.

Fast forward to yesterday, which is an impressive manoeuvre if one thinks about it, and it was with some anticipation of disappointment that I took the five and a half hour journey from Ironforge to West Feralas where it had been determined that there were probably quests that I had yet to undertake. I found some quests of suitable level range, some below my character's current level which are always good for warming-up and getting back into one's stride, and a few more challenging ones. What followed was a couple of hours of insane experience gaining, loot gathering and general all round OMG and indeed, as those kids say, WT to the F. Yo. My character gained a level and half in what seemed like the blink of an eye and, although I'm not sure if this was due to the recent patch or that luck was having a day off from being a shrewish harridan and was now a lascivious lady of loot, I gained my first ever epic world drop, a mountain of green items, a fourteen slot bag and more pearls than I've ever seen.

Certainly, if Blizzard are trying to entice players back to the game, then this is a fine way to go about it, much to the chagrin of the 'dedicated', 'hard working', 'skilled' 'elite' of the game's upper echelons I'm sure. I shall certainly be returning to my priest again tonight, and although lady luck might not be putting-out with the amply lubricated lootual favours this time around, I can already see the summit of Mt. Grind where the Outlands Express awaits to whisk me onwards to the golden land. Either that or I'm being fed a pleasant dream, an enzyme-induced euphoria, while the Elder Game wraps its dark velvety tentacles around my head and sucks away the last remaining ebb of life force through my brain.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh WoW R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.

WoW fhtagn.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Stone the crows.

The current character that I'm playing in City of Villains, as part of the Monday n00b Club's excursions into all things Strike Force, is a true favourite of mine even though the power-set combination that he utilises is deemed to not be amongst the more 'uber', 'down with the kids', 'too hip to be cool' combinations. Inspired somewhat by other's detailing of their characters I thought I would ramble on a little about the character that makes me smile every time I come to play them of a Monday evening. A Stone/Dark Brute, he is an absolute joy to play, and despite having not yet gained some of the signature powers of either power-set, nevertheless each gaming session sees me with a face of childlike wonder and merriment, grinning through a bottom jaw set firmly away from the top one as if each had been magnetised as an opposing pole, watery eyes wide open trying not to blink and miss a moment of the utter carnage that is centralised around the ground zero, the focussed point of fury, that is my character.

Stone Melee and Dark Armour are interesting power-sets because they both give up a little of their primary function - that of damage for melee and resistance/defence for armour - in order to have a little more capacity for utility. For these two power-sets the utility provided is that of soft and hard control elements through which develops a very nice synergy, alas it is a synergy at a price, and that price is three pounds, fifty four pence.

Oh, sorry, that's the price of my lunch. The price of synergy for these power-sets is in fact Endurance, great oceanic swathes of that beautiful bright blue bar which is the steam locomotion, the petroleum ignition, the controlled nuclear reaction, in essence the 'power' to any hero's 'super'. It's a high price to pay, and it leaves the player running a tightrope between not taking mobs down quickly enough and not being able to take them down at all. There's nothing worse than hearing that dreaded "BWOOOoooo" as all your toggle powers (generally these relate to armour and status protection) shut down and you're left standing amidst a horde of angry hooligans slavering for blood, at which point your character's limp and impotent body allows for nothing more than a meek smile and a gentle covering of the wibbly bits before taking a beating that would make the eggs in an omelette admit that life was really pretty good, all things considered.

Stone Melee

New Improved Inferno, now with headings! It'll never catch on.

In short: stone melee rocks in all senses physical, metaphysical and metaphorical. It is for me the quintessential melee power in the City of Supers series of games, with its huge thundering attacks that encapsulate everything that the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff preached unto us in their song about the joy of boom, right down to the shake-shake-shaking of the room; one feels an instant urge to let rip a wild eyed maniacal roar of laughter as foes walk headlong into fists of solid stone or are flung through the air on the end of a rock mallet, and the dangerous part of this adrenaline rush is the need to fuel it further, to continue smashing saints and pummelling the penitent for as long as your fingers will maintain a point with enough resistance to depress a key, until several hours later you are mashing chunks of keys at a time with the bruised and bloodied knuckles of what remains of your abused and ravaged hands. Now take into consideration the need, nay the very desire of a Brute archetype to keep fighting, for the more that the character fights the greater his rage builds, and as we all know, with great rage comes great responsibility.

I jest of course, because with great rage comes wild abandonment of reason and the reduction of intellect to that of a gibbering marmot that never bothered with school and instead spent all of its days down at the Nevada arcade playing Bubonic Fighter Alpha and Virtua Groundhog.

It is hard to describe to anyone who has not played a Brute just how completely the developers have managed to tap into the essence of our cave dwelling ancestors, to hit that primal nerve that triggers ancient genes long forgotten in the darkest depths of the brain, from a time when the RFC for flight as a method of survival had yet to be ratified, and fight was the protocol of the day. When you are beating upon enemies and they, in turn, are beating on you, then the rage bar builds, and with that comes a seemingly exponential increase in damage; when you stand still and are not in combat the rage bar will decrease until it is nothing and hence, therefore, are you. Given such a choice: between glorious, dry-mouthed, heart-pounding combat, raging amidst the waves of the enemy as they crash and break against your coastal form, immovable as the land itself, and like such, only to be gloriously defeated if the waves determine to rise up so high as to drown you beneath them in a tsunami-like torrent; or to stand limp and feeble, like some frail old man unable to summon even the strength to draw up his incontinence pants to maintain his dignity at the bus stop where he stands, and where moments ago the elastic on his underwear decided unkindly to fail him.

Then I say there is no choice at all.

Having said that, it is clear that allowing the combination of the stone melee power-set with the Brute archetype is in absolute contravention of several articles of the Geneva Conventions.

It is worth noting that I'm feeling this way without having taken a couple of the signature powers of the stone melee set yet. My character is currently level twenty five and has been developed more on the Tank side of the Tank/DPS hybrid scale that Brutes straddle, mainly due to the fact that as the rest of the formation of the Monday n00bs consists of a Stalker and a couple of Corruptors, it seemed like a good idea to have someone to absorb the bulk of the enemy's ire. This meant getting Dark Armour's shields and damage aura (which acts as a very nice field o' taunt and beats having to shout "Yo Mamma!" all the time) set up early along with the requisite power pools of Fitness (for the lovely and ever-needed endurance booster that is Stamina) and Leaping (for not only the essential travel power but also Acrobatics, which prevents my character spending most of the game getting up from being knocked down); the tank-like setup left little room for actual attacks, and so he has the minimal number of attacks that I felt would put out a decent amount of damage once the rage bar got going but also wouldn't suck down a lot of endurance before I had Stamina and various other powers slotted with Single Origin enhancements, which make all the world of difference to how a character plays. As such, he has Stone Fist, Stone Mallet and Heavy Mallet only, and is missing the lovely soft-control Fault power, and the insane damage with extra disorienting goodness that is Seismic Smash.

Considering how much fun it is to play with just three powers, I can't wait to see how things go when the entire arsenal of smash is fully assembled and he realises his full potential. I foresee much tongue-lolling, dribbling and drying-out of the eyeballs.

Dark Armour

Dark armour has toggles, and plenty of them. A toggle power is one that is turned on and left on until you decided to turn it off or it is forcibly turned off by the enemy. In return for whatever ability this toggle bestows upon your character you pay a small debt of endurance that constantly ticks away at a set amount over time; inherent endurance regeneration and the extra boost to this provided by powers such as Stamina mean that you can invariably run one or two toggles with little effect on the overall, um... endurance of your character in a fight. However, the more toggles that you run the more likely you are to chew through your endurance once a fight begins in earnest since you will eventually overcome your natural regeneration from simply running the toggles alone, and the larger amounts of endurance required to power your attacks, especially with an endurance hungry power-set such as stone, becomes very noticeable indeed, until the point that you hear the dreaded "BWOOOoooo" and big bald men in leather jackets come around and repossess all of your toggle powers due to your lack of payment to the endurance lenders. So a few toggles are manageable, more toggles become a problem, and dark armour has a lot of toggles; there are toggles for basic resistances and obscure forms of damage such as fire; toggles to counter status effects such as sleep and hold; there are toggles for damaging your opponents and for fearing and disorientating them, and there are toggles for repelling small Yorkshire Terriers in smoking jackets, for defrosting your car in the morning and for washing wool at sixty degrees without shrinking it.

In return for this drain of endurance the dark armour wearer is blessed with respectable protection from nearly every type of damage that the enemy can throw at them, and on top of all that they get some lovely soft-control powers to prevent the enemy from even having the chance of attacking them in the first place. Alas, the control power of the dark armour set doesn't come until the later levels and as such my Brute will have to wait some time for this pièce de résistance of the set, irony intended, since all the powers I have taken up until now are actually to do with the resistance of damage, whereas the pièce de résistance is not.

So far the tactics for dark armour - as much as I have developed any tactic other than a Leeroy Jenkins-like charge into the midst of huge crowds of angry protagonists accompanied by a vague hope that the rest of the team noticed my disappearance beneath the angry writhing mob, and more importantly can be bothered to help dig me out again - is the common sense option of only turning those toggles on that are required at the time: if the enemy is mainly firing guns and punching my character, then I only need the most basic armour, if they shoot flames or energy beams then I use the specialised 'Other stuff that isn't punching or shooting' shield for dealing with that while turning off the basic armour, and when a boss or arch-villain comes along, well, it's a case of turn everything on and hope that he runs out of health before I run out of endurance.

And so far, fighting alongside an awesome team of fellow villains, the tide has always turned once it hit the rocky coast. Or, at least, when the rocky coast hit it back.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

It is safest to take the unpopular side in the first instance.

From the Cryptic Blog:

"Traditionally, there have been two dominant design motivations for instancing:
[...] Secondly, in the early days of MMORPGs one of the ongoing problems was
players camping valuable spawns or drops, effectively locking other
players out of content."

And the devs of the various MMOs weren't having players doing that!

Not when they could create raid instances and lock the majority of players out of the content themselves. Why should the gankers and campers have all the fun?

Monday, 12 November 2007

MMOon on a stick.

Welcome to my new feature, MMOon on a Stick. Here I'll just dump out random ideas that, riding on the back of cosmic rays, have struck my head and burrowed their way into my brain. They'll be fanciful, bizarre, incomprehensible, impossible, and all other sorts of ibles. It's just a quick dump of the contents of my brain when I think "Hey, what if?"

The first cranium crusader, and inspiration for this post, is as follows:

I was thinking about the hunter class in WoW, having been playing one for the first time recently. I've been enjoying the dynamic that exists between the hunter and their pet, with the pet as tank and moderate DPS and the hunter as DPS and moderate healer. It became clear that this worked well as a duo, but that once a hunter joins a group of adventurers their pet is often a mediocre tank compared to a warrior, and the hunter is not often the highest DPS compared to Rogues or Mages or Warlocks; I daren't suggest that hunters are mediocre DPS lest I call down the firey brimstoning wrath of a hundred thousand million hunters. Hoo boy, there are a lot of hunters, don't ever annoy them, they'll rise up and devour the world.

Anyway! What I thought was this: once the hunter joined a team, what if they could turn off their pet and in exchange get a boost to their DPS or crowd control abilities, such that they could contribute that much better to a defined role in the group. Extrapolating this a little further, it seemed like a fun idea to have any class have abilities that helped them to solo, but which they could turn off when joining a group in exchange for becoming a more pure class of tank, DPS, crowd control, healer, burger vendor, accountant or what have you.

Taking the superimposed reduction of this extrapolation into its primary quanta and then running it backwards through an inverted induction field (what?), I landed at the following: have players with skills that are unlocked based on the composition of the party. For example: with no healer in the party all DPS/Tank characters would have their innate healing abilities unlocked, but at considerably reduced DPS due to certain combat powers becoming locked and unavailable to them; they will be able to achieve the same content as they would with a healer, but it will be more difficult for them as they will have to concentrate on healing themselves at the same time, and it will be a slower, tougher fight due to their reduction in DPS. If a healer were to join the party the self-healing skills of the DPS players would be locked, but their greater DPS skills would become available, meanwhile the healer class's DPS skills would become locked but their more powerful healing skills would become available.

Changing the makeup of a character in this way seemed like not only an interesting additional dynamic to the game-play, but could also go somewhat towards alleviating the problems of solo play as a non-DPS class and group play when no healer is available. I use the healer example here, but it could work equally well for tanks and crowd control classes too.

So there you go, the self-induced public craniotomy that is Moon on a Stick.

Aspire rather to be a hero than merely appear one.

I was reading an interesting discussion on Zen of Design about how to address the public’s innate desire to play as Batman or Wolverine in the forthcoming Marvel and DC MMOs; I haven't any contribution to make to that discussion other than the fact that if you think having some "Kekeke LOLZ" person playing as one of your nearest and dearest intellectual character properties is a good idea, you must have been snorting the Joker's dandruff. I mean, just go on to an MMO server, any server, any game, and turn on general chat and listen for five minutes. Ok, that, that right there is going to be what it would sound like in Professor Xavier's school for the 'gifted':

Cyclops: "Wolverine is FAG!"

Wolverine: "I am not! I kik ur ars in PvP. QQ more Siklops you == teh lose"

Cyclops: "Ur just got overpowered regen FoM character."

Rogue: "Hey guys, can't we all just get along."

Wolverine: "Show us ur boobs Rouge!"

Cyclops: "LOLZ!"

Beast: "LOL!"

Rogue: "Oh please."

Cyclops: "Jean Grey has the better boobs."

Wolverine: "NO WAI!"

Beast: "Yuh uh!"

Jubilee: "Reported."

Cyclops: "What who?"

Cyclops: "Who u reporting I not done anything."

Jubilee: "I'm reporting you and Wolverine."

Cyclops: "We didn't do nothing."

Wolverine: "Jubilee got no boobs."

Cyclops: "LOLZ!"

Beast: "Ha ha"

Iceman: "ROFL!"

Storm: "Hey what about my boobs?"

Letting players loose on your carefully crafted IP is just going to end in tears and far too many screenshots of Wolverine and Cyclops trying to gangbang Rogue or Magneto or each other. So what to do? I'd like to see the game building a story of your character as a hero in their own right. Starting off the game as a civilian could be an interesting ploy, it allows you to build the story right from scratch and work your way through one of the most interesting parts of any hero's story, the act of transformation. Bruce Wayne's struggle and eventual coming to terms with the bats in the cave beneath Wayne Manor for example, which represented more than a phobia of flying rodents, but a struggle with helplessness and fear. Peter Parker's horror and confusion at his newfound power, followed by jubilation and freedom and then regret and the oppression of responsibility. It could be argued that these moments, above all things, make these characters what they are, to themselves and to their audience. The act of discovery is beautiful in its own right, so why deny your players the chance to experience this with their own characters, and perhaps provide a unique bond between that player and their virtual alter ego.

It would beat starting the game as a low powered hero.

Officer: "Help! Infernus! There are people stuck in the bank's vault; they're running low on air and it's been frozen shut by the icy Dr. Blain!"

Infernus: "Sorry officer, I'm only a low powered hero. My powers are quite limited. I can reheat that cup of coffee for you though, if you'd like."

Officer: "I, uh... sure."

Infernus: "Ok! It'll take me about twenty minutes or so, but then it should be nice and steaming again. Stand back now. Infernus calls forth the inferno of Hades to do his bidding!"

<A little puff of smoke and a tiny match-like flame spring forth from the palm of his hand>

<Infernus grins sheepishly at the unimpressed policemen>

Have your players start out as civilians and have them pick the route they want to go through to become the hero of their choosing. A player could run missions at the local military facility if they wanted their hero to be the result of scientific military experiments, or perhaps they will find a military battle-suit that they steal and use for the good of mankind. Once the basic concept of the hero has been decided through pre-hero quest choices the transformation mission would be undertaken. Lord of the Rings Online has shown that the instanced, scripted mini quest is very viable as a method of storytelling, and I imagine it could work well in the super hero genre as well.

But it shouldn't stop with the drama of the transformation, the life of a super hero is defined not just by the villains that they fight and the wrongs that they right, it's also about the struggle with anonymity and with being misunderstood, it's about having to leave loved ones behind or neglected, and it's about the crushing responsibility of power over the lives of others.

It's about human nature when faced with the unnatural.

And this is the problem that Marvel and DC have with their games; in my view their heroes are compelling because of the story surrounding them, it's not about the flashy powers (if you think about it, most of them have a very limited range of powers), it's about the way that they use them and the stories that result from the use and misuse of these gifts, as a normal human being comes to terms with the extraordinary and the resulting moral decisions. The problem is that the MMOs of the past have never been the greatest medium for the telling of tales where the character is concerned, oh yes there are stories, stories abound, but they are not about the character, they are about the world the character lives in, or they are about the lives of the NPCs with which the character interacts. What I'd dearly love to see in these future super hero games is a new take on MMOs, where storytelling becomes an integral part of the player's game, such that a player becomes so involved in the story of their character, where to live the decisions, victories and failures of the character becomes so integral to their idea of a super hero that they do not care to play as that meat-headed Wolverine, because their character's story is more compelling to them.

The super hero genre unlike any other has the ability to break the boundaries of MMO convention just as their characters break the boundaries of human endeavour, but it may well take a super human effort on the part of the developers to make it a virtual reality.

Friday, 9 November 2007

In the news.

NCSoft and Mythic decided to go their separate ways after attempts to merge their franchises City of Heroes and Dark Age of Camelot resulted in the disappointing and poorly received game of lycra-wearing female protagonists in a medieval setting: Dark City of Cameltoes.

Ward robe.

I got up this morning, washed and then hopped into my outfit for work:

I first put on my lycra cycling shorts since these provide the most comfort and flexibility while seated in a chair all day; the knee-length thermal socks were next, because it's getting a bit chilly and they provide excellent frost resistance. I choose a pair of Birkenstocks for my feet as, although they only have moderate armour, they give a generous bonus to my comfort rating and provide sweat reduction. I wear a bra these days because, although it's not really designed for my class, it gives huge bonuses to my support stats, so I popped one of those on. Next I shrugged myself into my fireman's vest: great elemental protection and it also provides a small bonus to seduction checks! I decided to go for a bowler hat today instead of the deer stalker on my head slot; I prefer the deer stalker for general use, but today I was going to be grinding my London commuter rep, and you have to wear the bowler to be able to interact with them. London is a noisy place though, so I put on my ear defenders first, these provide a massive resistance to all forms of aural attack, although you do get a bit of a negative modifier to detect speeding taxis when you're crossing the road. Luckily the bowler hat reminded me that I had a nice silk tie that also temporarily boosted my company rep, so I popped that on my neck slot. I wasn't sure what to go for in the eye slot, so in the end I stuck with my stalwart ski goggles; you just can't beat anti-glare and immunity to grit in the eye! A pair of shiny rubber marigold gloves next, pretty much standard fair for anyone having to touch the doors on public transport, plus their superb water resistance would stand me in good stead if I had to deal with any impromptu plumbing quests: the sink at work has been leaking for a while now. I strapped on my workman's utility belt, which is excellent for providing extra slots to carry food and stationary and any other loot I pick up during the day. The cricketer's box went on next - it's so nice to be able to stack armour over your basic clothing - and these make one's privates uncrushable against fellow commuters swinging their briefcases wildly around during the frantic morning rush hour. Finally I checked outside and it looked as though it was going to be a pretty cold zone that I was heading out in to, so I decided to grab my wife's pink dressing gown and put that on my back slot, it has just about the best cold resistance that I know of and it boosts snuggle and cosiness stats as well.

And there you have it, probably the best London commuter outfit that you can get outside of the major raid instances such as Savile Row!

Monday, 5 November 2007


The bushido bladed Stormgaard did tag me earlier in the week with a self-wrought meme about five lessons that one has learned from playing MMOs. My post is somewhat delayed and I should apologise, but alas it is not really entirely my fault for I am somewhat cursed with a rather fickle muse. When my muse is around I can write for hours, draw moderately splendid pictures (if I do say so myself) and undertake other such creative outlets without batting an eyelid. However, they're very rarely available and more often than not when I call on them for aid I get a rather abrupt and abusive answer-phone message which tells me in no uncertain terms where I can stuff my desire for creative stimulus. When they do finally show up they have a stinking hangover, the whiff of alcohol and cigarettes is about them and they sport a rather brutish six o'clock shadow of stubble, which is all the more frightening a proposition when you consider that my muse is female. For those of you who are aware of the more UK centric comedians, my muse could be likened to Jo Brand if she'd gone on a six day drinking binge with Mick and Ronnie of Rolling Stones fame. It's not so much a gentle seductive inspiration in the creative arts than a big lady with a fag hanging from the corner of her mouth shouting "Get on and write something you lazy oik! I'm going for a cooked breakfast; there'd better be something on that paper when I get back or I'll give you a thick ear". Charming. I should probably delete the above before she gets back, otherwise I'll be for it. I'll do that in a bit, but first I will attend to the meme at hand, so without further ado here are five lessons that I've learned whilst playing MMOs:

1) In any MMORPG the NPCs are the heroes.

It took a while for me to learn this one, and with each new game came the watery wide eyed, hand clasped, bottom lip biting look of hope that accompanies the prayer that this time I would be able to adventure with my character through strange and wonderous lands, and that with these exploits would come fame, fortune and perhaps a little bit of what I believe the hip young crowd call 'looking like a bad-ass'. What actually transpired each time was that I would adventure through oddly familiar and generic lands, and with those adventures would come the realisation that I was a mouse on a treadmill of ever increasing RPM that I would eventually no longer be able to keep up with, at which point I would be flung off and into the cage bars of reality, and as my blurred vision from the impact began to clear the reality that slowly came into focus showed me that I really was quite inconsequential in this world, that I was a mere pawn in the affairs of NPCs. Those damnable NPCs, with their matching sets of clothes and armour who, whether going shopping or standing in a field in the middle of nowhere, look ten times more awesome than I ever will. NPCs who have an arm missing but still fight better than I can with two, who wear blindfolds and yet have powers so awesome that they can lay waste to an army of opponents when I have barely etched a noughts and crosses board on the armour of one of them. NPCs, and mobs too, have incredible powers that players are just begging their trainers to instruct them in; huge damaging spells for next to no mana, heals that could top-up the health of entire continents of players in one go, debilitating powers that could lay waste to those same continents. It wouldn't be so bad, but here is my character, with many years of time spent adventuring the lands, and all he has to show for it is a slightly limp mace and a shield which I found out the other day is really just a large chocolate Christmas tree decoration in disguise; really, the shield does look like one of those chocolate Christmas tree decorations, I imagine my dwarf hiding behind it as the enemy swings some magnificent, deadly and glorious battle axe which strikes through the tin foil wrapping and gets stuck in the 20% cocoa base, at which point my dwarf peers out over the top of the shield with a huge cheesy grin and perhaps takes a little bucktoothed nibble of chocolate as the orc desperately tries to pull his gummed-up weapon away.

Could instanced worlds help alleviate this annoyance and give players a greater standing in these virtual lands in which they spend so much time inhabiting? I envisage a lobby for players to login to and tweak around with their characters, trade items and meet people but then they enter an instanced world limited to a very small number of people, perhaps a guild per instanced realm; recruitment would also take place in the lobby and there would be a default realm for the unguilded. In this way the uniqueness and involvement of a player would by multiplied by a huge factor, and the players could perhaps be more powerful in this world compared to NPCs because they come from a limited band of heroes rather than a horde of maniacal adventurers that would challenge the crowds at the January sales for sheer loot grabbing ferocity. There's often a fairly high registration on the outrage-o-meter when 'instanced' anything is suggested to players, but Guild Wars has shown that this can work successfully on an instance per group ideology, what I'm suggesting is that the actual realm would remain intact between sessions, such that when you return to the realm, rather than having a fresh world where everything has reset, you would be known in the land, if you'd helped the village of Gankton from being set upon by all the other local villages (serves them right for moving into a place called Gankton, to be honest) then the villagers there would remember your deeds, and perhaps the other villages would also remember...

Anyway, that was an ever so slightly tangential ramble, and suffice it to say that I don't believe that it would be entirely viable to create such a thing in the near future, so until then I will just have to remember the lesson that my shields will always be made of chocolate, my character will always look like a patchwork lunatic and NPCs will always be the coolest kids on the block.

2) MMOs are really social simulators for the government.

You've been fed a lie all of your MMO life, you're not playing games, you are in fact playing thinly disguised advanced social simulators run by government funded agencies. Never before have governments had the opportunity to study such social behaviours as mob mentality, crime, love, betrayal, cliques, in fact the whole Lord of the Flies shebang, without having to be accountable for the resulting harm that comes to their electorate. Reward vs Punishment, how group learning works vs singular attempts. How do the 'top' guilds form? Why do they form? What factors cause them to splinter and fracture, and what is the effect of the resulting fallout. There is so much information that can be gathered, and probably is, as to how social networks perform under various situations, it's a gold mine of data to anyone who wants to know how to make friends, influence people and take over the world.

A tad extreme, but you never know! Which is why you should always do things to confuse their data collection. I suggest acts of sabotage such as randomly stopping in populated server areas and spinning on the spot for two minutes, buying all the cheese in a shop and giving it to passing PCs, running backwards into all dungeons that start with the letter 'd', forming huge groups of fellow players and then travelling across the land while other players pretend to be herding you like cattle, and standing naked on a mailbox while dancing for the general population. Wait, scrub that last one.

3) It's just a game.

So simple to state; so difficult to master.

4) Give a chance to all things.

Games, guilds, players, they all deserve a chance before they are dismissed to the pits of mediocrity, melodrama and moronisity. Case in point: I probably wouldn't have played CoH at all if it wasn't for the enthusiasm of others, I had already written it off as being from a developer that I'd heard little about, and a game of which there had been little buzz within the pages of those gaming journals that I read at the time. Another example: I left my WoW guild prematurely, it turns out, because it looked to me as though a clique was forming and that the guild was going to consist of a few people running instances and using the rest of us to fill the holes in their dungeon running schedule when they were missing a member of the cool kids; shortly after I left the guild a huge wave of new people joined and it looks as though the guild was probably pretty good for all involved in the end. Lesson learned.

It's worth trying games whenever you can; betas are useful in this fashion, it's nice to be able to determine that a game is not for you, and not having to buy the box to find this out is a boon, but it's worth remembering that it's also a good way to find those pieces of gold that are hidden in amongst the silt that is the general gaming market.

Give players a chance. Some people are truly wonderful but have the unfortunate knack of coming across as being obnoxious when their speech is distorted in the refractive index of a textual medium. Before taking offence to something someone has said in game, try to take a look at it from another perspective, see if there's any way to interpret it in a more favourable light. Sometimes this will work, and you might realise that the other player wasn't insulting the honour of your pet hamster, but was merely trying to convey a joke that doesn't work without the complexities of vocal inflection and facial expressiveness. Sometimes the element of confusion has been introduced by your own prejudices, and is not in fact the fault of the other player in the slightest. Sometimes a simple typo can change the entire meaning of sentence.

And sometimes people are just arsing cockbags.

Just as a quick aside: out of curiosity I checked what my spellchecker thought cockbags should really be, it suggested cockboats which is apparently the unfortunate name for a small ferry boat and not, as I surmised, a supplementary vessel for astonishingly well endowed men who couldn't fit it onto a yacht for fear of getting it caught in the rigging.

5) I am uniquely not suited to MMOs.

But I play them anyway. I forever seem to be out of a guild and I am often playing solo more than I'm playing in groups. This is the fault of nobody else, it is purely a failing of my own through my uncanny ability to project my real world social ineptness even unto virtual worlds where nobody knows my name and where nobody can readily determine my painful shyness and incompetence in casual conversation. Still I let it affect me, and thus it often spoils what could otherwise be a great experience.

In MMOs nobody can hear you scream in anguish at your inability to socialise. Unless you miss the mute button on the microphone, I suppose, and even then it's just a strange gurgling sound as you try to string vowels and consonants together.

Sometimes though, just very occasionally, you get a group where things go fantastically well, where the conversation flows like honey on hot toast, where the adventures are epic and where time's very flow is halted, you feel as if you're momentarily caught by Matrix bullet time as the camera pans around your frozen form and then everything accelerates again, so quickly in fact that before you know it you find the dawn is stretching its luminous fingers underneath your door and around the edges of your curtains.

In the end it is those moments that keep me playing, because the sheer unadulterated joy of bonding with others and creating mutual enjoyment through the medium of gaming is worth all the solo pain and social aggravation that shrouds it for the rest of the time.

And there you have it, five things that I've learned, and now I shall have to depart with haste, dear reader, because my muse is back and she seems to be carrying a really rather shockingly big stick which I fully believe she intends to swing with some venom towards my cockboat.